June 28, 1993 | Vintage Insatiable

Street Food: Do We Dare?

          To sup curbside or not to sup curbside--that is the question. Whether ‘tis nobler to dare the icy blasts of air-conditioning or the soot and fret of dining on the pavement. The exhaust fumes we devour like some exotic chutney on a sandwich au jambon in Paris feel somehow menacing on Manhattan avenues. And even with a modest barrier -- a staccato of planters, perhaps -- passers-by seem too close, inhaling the perfume of our quesadilla, critiquing the Caesar with visible scorn, watering their dogs dangerously near.

          Everywhere now, restaurants grand and modest are tumbling onto the sidewalk. Tables -- licensed and outlaw -- beckon, even outside pubs and fast-food stands. Three tables are in demand at Arcadia and Daniel plans to serve alfresco soon. 

          Some seasoned urbanites will never be comfortable in the great, uncontrollable outdoors. But adventurers will sip icy margaritas at the bar for as long as it takes to score a spot on the pavement. Even when the kitchen stumbles, sidewalk serendipity ensure a feast for voyeurs. 

          People-watching comes in all the flavors of the city. Orthodentured preppies and tourists in boxer shorts. A beauty out of a Lauren ad in jodhpurs. A gangling giant with a basketball, applying lip balm. Designer grunge and trash-can-salvage grunge. Interactive theater.

          “How about something for the United Negro Pastrami Fund?” asks a cheerful panhandler. That earns him a dollar.

          “May I ask you a question…” the donor begins.

          “Grey Poupon.”

***

          Sidewalk creep may have multiplied the capacity, but it hasn’t cooled the fever at Baraonda. From day one, it was a salon for the lean and nicotine-addicted, those survivors of the eighties who may get up earlier now but party just as late. Trendotized Upper East Siders and nearby neighbors come for good food at sane prices (options range from $7.50 for a generous half-order of pasta to $22 for a grilled stuff veal chop), fueling the press for a table. But padrone Enrico Proietti’s sweetness and passion to please softens the edge, setting the tone for the leggy creatures who direct the traffic. Wherever you are on the slanted pavement, there’s drama. Second Avenue’s fashion hodgepodge (granny muslins sweeping the curb, frizzled jeans, scarlet saris). An elderly woman struggling to extract coins from her change purse for an impatient beggar. A homeless man whirling mid-shuffle to cry, “Where are the blacks?”

          Mercifully distracted from that intrusion of reality by the arrival of salads -- baby octopus with fresh vegetables and arugula, and slivers of artichoke with fennel, red pepper, and cooling cuts or orange -- we see that the kitchen has lost some of its edge struggling to feed this crowd. But I’d still come for grilled calamari, excellent pounded veal chop (piled with a too salty salad), lobster on spaghettini, and perfectly cooked red snapper (market permitting) with roasted potatoes and olives. Baraonda, 1439 Second Avenue, at 75th (288-8555).

***

          At the first soft, sweet breeze of spring, the windows fly open to the street at Sign of the Dove, and the romance and sexiness of the bar-café stretches down 65th and along Third Avenue up to Ecce Panis. At night, jazz is a counterpoint to the sirens’ wail, and savvy New Yorkers share outside plates of chef Andrew D’Amico’s complex and delicious food at a discount from indoor tariffs (options range from $6 for hummus with harissa-roasted sourdough to $18 for Moroccan-spiced salmon to $100 for three caviars). From six o’clock on, the kitchen turns out soft-shell crab on focaccia with garlic-drenched skordalia (bean purée), splendid saffron gemelli pasta with mussels, my favorite mustardy smoked-pork-loin sandwich, and more…plus strawberry-rhubarb trifle, warm chocolate-caramel-soufflé tart, and peanut-crunch ice cream with spiced oatmeal cookies. Feel lazy, romantic, decadent, indulged. Sign of the Dove Café/bar, 1110 Third Avenue, at 65th

***

          With its beguiling sweep of bucolic countryside painted on the walls, Arcadia’s dining room may feel infinitely more at one with nature than the tiny tables invading East 62nd Street. But Anne Rosenzweig’s transcendent play on American classics is equally winning anywhere. Irresistible biscuits, her famous lobster club sandwich, soft-shell crabs with corn and tomato and favas, molasses-grilled quail on young dandelions --regulars know what to expect. Salmon topped with snippets of anchovy, capers, and herbs, afloat in an intense celery broth, and nutty skate with fried leek strings on a mound of julienned vegetables are the highlights of one recent lunch (entrées $19 to $24; prix fixe dinner $58, pretheater $29.93). Blackberry shortcake says spring. Chocolate bread pudding says Arcadia. Arcadia, 21 East 62nd Street

***

          With its smart striped awning unfurled, May We’s handsome sidewalk café is a refined refuge even in a summer drizzle. The languor of tree-lined East 73rd Street creates an almost Parisian setting for Mark May’s seriously beautiful and sophisticated Mediterranean-inspired cooking. The pungent tapenade and country bread are speedily replenished (we’re ravenous tonight). Then a spectacularly peppery and perfumed broth with “prickly shrimp” (heads-on, coated in phyllo slivers) and a garlic flan sets off murmurings (entrées $16 to $21.50).

          If the kitchen can keep tonight’s spark -- pea soup haunted by cumin and ginger, luscious halibut with Swiss chard and a tomato-apple brunoise in red-wine vinaigrette, honey-crusted duck, grilled lamb with herbed pecorino ravioli -- “street-food” will take on new meaning. May We, 1022 Lexington Avenue, at 73rd Street.

***

          Can the pleasures of Jour et Nuit’s sophisticated and flavor-rich cooking on giant plates be shifted from its dimly romantic Moroccanesque stage set to the sidewalk? Why not? For me, the silken foie gras with fig confit, the spectacular skate with grilled vegetables and gingered vinegar, and the savory hanger steak with marrow, shallots, and croustillante potato slices are equally thrilling en plein air with the soap opera of SoHo unreeling before our eyes. Two women dancing in the street. A duo of blade runners. Joggers and lovers of every sexual persuasion. 

          Tonight’s waiter has an accent thicker than Brie, and it’s fun to listen. The special rack of lamb split into four fatty chops sings with savor beside two gratins, one of potatoes and another of eggplant, zucchini, and tomato. Desserts come from a lesser planet. And the wine list is decidedly unfriendly, with only four whites and four reds under $25. Entrées $10 to $17.50 at lunch (prix fixe $17), $12 to $22 at dinner (pretheater prix fixe $25). Jour et Nuit, 337 West Broadway, at Grand Street. 

***

          A mounted policeman clip-clops by, pausing at Félix, where we are parked outside for a late supper. He frowns. I tense, certain we’re about to be arrested, or at least evicted. Outlaw sidewalk cafés bustle in SoHo as merchants lobby to change the zoning. The house’s stereo, blasting onto West Broadway, lowers perceptibly. The cop trots on. Saturday-night fever quakes this corner of West Broadway and Grand, with taxis exhaling sparsely clad beauties traipsing on a diagonal to Lucky Strike.

          Dinner at Félix is very French, contemporary bistro complete with accent, cream, and lots of butter (entrées $17 to $20) -- rabbit stew, salmon on wild mushroom ragout, luscious chicken on stuck-together fettuccine with cream. Congenital indifference is in the air, affecting the reservationist, who can’t be bothered to remind you it’s “cash only.” Félix, 340 West Broadway at Grand Street.

***

          Brand new and as yet virtually undiscovered, New World Grill feels like a small paradise on the promenade behind Eighth Avenue’s World Wide Plaza, with folks stretched out on the fountain ledge to catch noontime rays—bikers and skaters, brown-baggers, and lovers kissing. Sheltered by leafy branches and canvas umbrellas, we sample spring soup, fresh with a confetti of vegetable crunch and an ooze of pesto, but not enough depth, and spaghetti-squash pancakes drizzled with chipotle sauce. Roasted wild mushrooms with grilled polenta, shrimp club BLT, grilled chicken on a sesame bun with zesty barbecue sauce, grilled shrimp on torrid Thai noodles…what sophisticated fare, most of it good (options $4 to $13 at lunch, $4 to $17.50 at dinner). Plus a roster of wines and specialty beers at reasonable markups. New World Grill, 329 West 49th Street.

***

          We sulk a bit, being exiled to the poor-relations section of Coffee Shop’s all-day street scene. Umbrellas and a canopy shade diners facing Union Square. We sit around the corner on 16th Street, in unadorned Siberia, eyes glued to the action. The fleet’s in. Eager young’uns and a sprinkling of perfect bodies pile out of taxis and into the shadowy inner sanctum. The taller they are, the shorter their skirts. And some are chubby. A few may harbor a Y chromosome. Happily, the snippy, Fascist air of last winter has mellowed, and the food is surprisingly appealing. Of course, a caipirinha (lime and sugar with cachaça, Brazil’s favorite tipple) can make even a critic jolly. Stark sober, I’d love the caldo verde (a porridge of collard greens, sausage, and white beans) and the mountain of sesame-chicken salad with spinach, bok choy, and tortilla crisps. And there is a first-rate steak sandwich with peppers and onions (entrees $9.95 to $21.95 at dinner, less at lunch). Coffee Shop, 29 Union Square West, at 16th Street.

***

          Scattered tufts of tables dot the Upper West Side, but Isabella’s is the most fought-over turf. Still jumping late-late, the uneven kitchen in full throttle after midnight, Isabella’s seems to play it safe with all the dishes voted most likely to succeed -- fried calamari, Caesar salad, vaguely Italian pastas, salmon on a bed of spinach, chicken (nicely moist) with grilled asparagus and mushroom couscous. But look again. See the votive candles tucked into paper bags weighted with sand, the mini-cruet of green olive oil, the rosemary focaccia, the cream-stuffed chocolate bag on raspberry coulis: signs of ambition. All that, the amiable staff, and the gentle prices -- $14.95 for a big, reasonably tender steak (judiciously peppered) with mashed potatoes--keep fans loyal.

          As you share the vegetable antipasto platter with its caponata and goat-cheese bruschetta, or late-night frozen espresso, don’t be surprised to see Billy Baldwin, Jerry Seinfeld, John Kennedy with his mermaid, Matt Dillon, Yoko Ono, Billy Joel, and (am I imagining it?) and impressive excess of good-looking hunks. Isabella’s, 359 Columbus Avenue, at 77th. 

***

          What an amazing city…so many beautiful women, and look how many are wandering into Time Café tonight, most of them with exposed navels. Should I kill myself? Maybe after dinner. We’re planted under a green umbrella beside a three-foot hedge just scraggly enough to let us spy on the passing parade. This vegetarian’s Valhalla boasts recycled-paper menus but doesn’t sneer at pork chops -- just over-cooks them. And except for the sauce-sogged calamari, most everything is pleasing. Good quesadilla with zingy salsa and guacamole. Fine sides of spinach and stir-fried vegetables. A respectable Caesar and decent pizza. Skate a shade too cooked, perhaps, but nuttily delicious. And a strangely endearing mishmash of rigatoni with grilled red onion, red cabbage, capers, and chicken in a veggie broth. Hope soars at the sight of sour-cheery pie on the menu. If only it weren’t so gluey. Warm brownie is a better choice, and the sugarless apple pie is a primitive hit. (Options $3.75 to $13.50 at lunch, $3.75 to $16.50 at dinner.) Time Café, 380 Lafayette Street, at Great Jones.

***

          The Stanhope Terrace Café is so cleverly wrapped, even the trash-scavengers seem remote. No wonder we feel we’re far from the city. The well-dressed foreigners and spiffy suits -- and the Kurt’s Cyclone we’re sharing (vodka, peach nectar, and lemon) --leave us divorced from reality. Alas, the gazpacho with grilled shrimp; the oil-soaked tomato, buffalo mozzarella, and eggplant salad; and the stingy portion of fusilli with arid chicken do not live up to the fantasy (lunch options $5.50 to $19.50). My friend loves the strawberry shortcake. I can’t cozy up to spearmint-green whipped cream. But how petty to focus on cuisinary clumsiness. Here, it’s the enchantment that counts. Stanhope Terrace Café, 995 Fifth Avenue, at 81st.

***

          Au Café sprawls like a grand Parisian café on the corner of Seventh Avenue at 53rd Street, making it a perfect rendezvous and fueling stop before or after the theater. Scattered palms and skyscraper shadows make pockets of shade for local worker bees and tourists come to breakfast on beignets and fresh-squeezed juice, yogurt and granola, or eggs many ways. Pastas, a very good burger with first-rate fries, salads, and sandwiches (loved the Panini with eggplant, goat cheese, and sun-dried tomato) are lunch. Brunch mixes both menus, plus a $9.95 prix fixe. For just $12.95, dinner might start with a good-enough Caesar or grilled portobellos on lentils, then go on to roast chicken with mashed potatoes or surprisingly pleasing penne with eggplant, black olives, goat cheese, and more sundried you-know-what. A la carte portions are larger, entrees $9 to $13.50. The house’s blueberry coffee cake is superior to staleish carrot cake (and $1.50 cheaper). Check the dessert display. Coffee? Thirteen ways, plus iced or flavored. Au Café, 1700 Broadway, at 53rd.

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